Sedentary lifestyles and processed foods are having a huge impact on the nation’s health. 25% of UK children are overweight by the time they start reception and 10% are obese. By the time they leave for secondary school, the number of obese children doubles. This can lead to a lifetime of poor
eating and exercise habits that ultimately have a devastating effect on their health and life expectancy whilst also placing a huge burden on the NHS and social care. In addition, those who do not lead healthy lifestyles are likely to pass on their habits to their own children.
Tackling the UK’s poor eating and exercise habits has been an issue for some time and schools have
been given the challenge of trying to change that. Over the years there has been a succession of
initiatives from changing school menus, banning sweets, crisps and sugary drinks, the Healthy Active
Schools System, the Healthy Schools Awards and more. Schools now run countless programmes
including visiting experts, interactive displays, health orientated PSCHE lessons, cooking lessons for
parents and sporty afterschool activities.
However, according to a recent BBC report, ‘Anti-obesity programmes in schools don’t work’, many
of these initiatives are not having an impact. In a recent study by the University of Birmingham,
researchers set up a typical, school-based healthy lifestyle programme catering for 6 and 7-year- olds
in 26 local primary schools. 30 months later, their results showed that there had been “no significant
reductions in BMI and no improvements in energy expenditure, body fat measurements or activity
levels - compared with those not taking part.”
Why aren’t these initiatives working?
The simple answer is that teaching and doing are two different things. We can teach children and parents how to be healthy, give them opportunities to participate and point them in the direction where they can get exercise and healthy food, but this doesn’t change their habits. In this day and age, the majority of parents already know what’s needed to lead a healthy life. Unfortunately, their circumstances and lifestyle often get in the way.
With many families having two working parents, convenience is often top of the list when it comes to the weekly shopping. You can cook a frozen pizza and chips in the oven in 20 minutes and it can be hard not to when the kids demand tea as soon as you get home from work. Following on from this is price: the cost of the weekly shop has risen significantly while wages have remained static. Families are buying less expensive foods which are often higher in fats, sugars and additives.
And, of course, families live sedentary lifestyles. It's not just that children spend all their time on phones and gadgets: many parents don’t let their kids play out anymore. The last thing parents feel like doing after a busy day at work, making the tea, washing up, getting the uniforms ready and making packed lunches, is to take the family out for some exercise. They are tired, worn out and want nothing more than to put their feet up and watch a boxed set. The kids, meanwhile are left face-timing friends and watching their favourite YouTube stars.
It is little wonder, therefore, that healthy lifestyle initiatives geared simply towards educating are failing to have an impact.
What does work?
Helping children reduce weight is all about maths. If their calorie intake is less than the amount they expend, they’ll lose weight. If it’s more, they’ll put weight on. The best approach, therefore, is to tackle it from both ends. Firstly, by reducing the amount of unhealthy, high calorie, food being consumed, such as fat and sugar, you can reduce the daily calorie intake. This can be achieved through a healthy school menu and stricter rules about packed lunches and snacks.
Secondly, you can increase the number of calories being used by building exercise into the school day. Not only will this help reduce weight in overweight children, it will have a positive impact on all pupils’ physical and mental health and can even improve behaviour and attainment.
How to introduce physical activity in school
One of the most effective ways to increase physical activity is to give pupils the opportunity to be active whilst they play. Rather than sending children out into a boring old playground with nothing to do, many schools are now investing in outdoor playground equipment that encourages physical play. Indeed, research has shown that using ESP equipment has led to a 19% increase in physical activity.
Creating fun obstacle courses such as a Trim Trail, or installing Free Flow climbing equipment is a great way to encourage participation. You can also install a wide variety of playground markings which can be used for everything from hopscotch to team sports. For children who are more creative, there is a whole range of equipment that can be used for role-play, drama and dance activities.
Physical activity doesn’t just have to be reserved for PE and break times, either. With our wide selection of curriculum-based outdoor classroom equipment, you can now unleash your students from the desk and give them some active learning in the fresh air. At ESP Play, we have resources for every curriculum area, so, no matter what subject you are delivering, if the weather is fine, there’s no excuse to stay sedentary indoors.
Finally, you should consider signing up for The Daily Mile, a new initiative that gets every child in the school jogging (or even walking) at their own pace, for 1 mile every day. It takes just 15 minutes to do, needs no setting up and can be done in school uniform. It’s simple, easy and very effective.
Whilst educating pupils and parents about healthy lifestyles is important, on its own, it is having little impact on improving physical health or reducing childhood obesity. The biggest impact a school can have, therefore, is to make physical activity a normal part of school life and that means active play, active lessons and increased time for initiatives such as The Daily Mile. This way, not only are you teaching about a healthy lifestyle, you are providing it too.